September 11 — October 31, 2020
curated by Jeannine Bardo
Threshold’s inaugural exhibition, Natural History, is a solo exhibition by Murat Cem Mengüç with drawings and musings concerning the current epoch, deep time, humanity’s fleeting presence and our moment dangling on the precipice.
Fragments for a Natural History at Threshold
Essay by Murat Cem Mengüç
During the build up to the quarantine the term threshold, as in epidemic threshold, was regularly brought up. It referred to the infection rate a society had to reach in order to become a member of the pandemic. Statistics suggested there was an approaching moment, and the anticipation of that moment caused episodes of panic and inertia. We watched our government(s) wait for their thresholds, some arguing it will never arrive, or come to pass without being felt. For those who dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic, these thresholds represented illusionary projections and their non-arrival was going to deliver us from a fake illness. For those who knew the pandemic was real, inertly staring at the numbers was also incapacitating.
This experience reminded me of the physics experiments we used to conduct in elementary school to determine the saturation points of different liquids. We would add solubles into these liquids under different physical conditions, and measure how much they could dissolve. Similarly, I felt like we were watching the pandemic unfold as an experiment to see how much illness our society could absorb. When the quarantine morphed into the Black Lives Matter protests, the same metaphor remained applicable; how much systemic racism and police brutality can a society hold? All of this was happening within the context of a government who openly denied climate change and scientific knowledge in general. It seemed like we were surrounded by thresholds.
Psychologically speaking, I think such thresholds traumatize us by impairing our perceptions by formulating solutions that end up being contradictions, such as pointing to a statistical redline we must cross before things must be taken seriously, at the same time suggesting that we can ignore the problem for the time being. But the presence of the threshold means that the problem is already here, and it is for the sake of the threshold that we postpone judgement, action, and even feelings. In other words, by the time we take it to the streets to protest systemic racism or climate change denial, it is already too late to erase a good deal of the damage, and the trauma from which we suffer.
When I taught history, I used to tell the students to be prepared to give up most of their common wisdoms. To learn from history, I would argue, means to unlearn ourselves. One common wisdom against which I would argue was the dictum that human beings learn from their mistakes. In reality, human beings are creatures of habit, and most of them will gladly die before they change their ways. Many civilizations drove themselves into extinction in the name of ritual, and tradition. In his Muqaddimah, the great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun explains how it takes as little as one generation to become a redundant and regressive bunch. The fact is, the vast majority of the human experience is failure, and we repeat our mistakes as long as we can get away with it. Racism and slavery are great examples of it. Both are still practiced today in the forms of social discrimination, penal incarceration, prison labor and at a larger scale through debt slavery. Everywhere we look, we see people who openly defend their current forms. Yet, we know that neither are morally acceptable or economically maintainable ideas.
US history tells us that two arguably distinct societies (the agricultural South and the industrial North) have gone to war over racism and slavery. And when the war ended, the two sides united to form a new nation, who recognized the war as a part of their national heritage. Afterwards, stories were told, images were forged, flags were designed, statues were erected, books and films were written through which the civil war was legitimized. Meanwhile, millions of slaves who were part of the war, for whose sake the war was supposedly fought, and who became free afterwards were systematically excluded from the emerging national economy and politics. They were disenfranchised, and made second class citizens. And most importantly, they were excluded from influencing the official and popular narratives of the civil war. How does this add up to any learning from ones’ mistakes? Societies absorb truth very slowly, and very reluctantly. They have very low thresholds for the lessons of history, so to speak. And when they do absorb truth, they almost always do so exclusive for the sake of a newly emerging reality. No society ever embraces its past for the sake of honesty and healing. The only reason a society ever comes to terms with its past is when its narratives and mythology may no longer make sense within the context of the new daily reality.
Another common wisdom I would ask my students to question was evolution. And by evolution I don’t mean the social Darwinist, Eurocentric racist definition of evolution, but the general idea that things, especially living organisms, somehow evolve towards something other than themselves, for better or worse. It is true that living organisms may grow complex. Under the right circumstances growing complex may help them adapt to different environments. But growing complex alone in and of itself doesn’t represent any fundamental change, let alone progress.The real reasons for speciation are always environmental. On occasion, an environment may be transformed due to a species’ behavior and growth, as it was in the case of the Late Devonian extinction, and as it is with our current Anthropocene extinction. But in the end, the environment will be the deciding factor that dictates the direction of the speciation.
Prior to the quarantine, I was a volunteer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington DC, for the permanent exhibition titled Deep Time. This exhibit explores the history of five major extinctions as a way to explain the current extinction in progress. The five prominent extinctions are, the Ordovician, Late Devonian, Permian-Triassic, Triassic-Jurassic, and Cretaceous–Paleocene. In popular culture, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction is the most well known, perhaps because it involved dinosaurs and was triggered by a dramatic meteorite hit which transformed the entire ecology of our planet. However, this extinction was one of the smaller ones, eliminating only about 50% of the Earth’s species. Scientists point at the Permian-Triassic extinction as the most drastic one, when nearly 95% of the species on Earth went extinct. Permian-Triassic was caused by a combination of factors, including meteorites and volcanos.
But, of the five extinctions underlined, I was always fascinated with the Late Devonian extinction, because it resembles the Anthropocene the most. Like the Anthropocene, this mass extinction was caused by a living organism, and not geologic forces. In the Late Devonian era, an excessive portion of the planet was covered with algae, which sucked much of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the seas, eventually suffocating most of life, leading to the loss of 80% of the Earth’s living species. What we call fossil fuel today is partly the byproduct of the dead algae which became trapped within the Earth’s crust during the Late Devonian.
The Anthropocene extinction will be the second extinction triggered by a living organism. Similar to the Late Devonian, human beings will die at a grand scale but most likely, not become extinct. Scientists at the NMNH believe that like the Late Devonian algae, we are far too populous, live in far too distinct and many ecologies, and we are a highly adaptable species, all which will most likely help us avoid extinction.
There is also a big irony in terms of ontology; unlike the algae, humans are self-conscious beings. This will makethe Anthropocene the first self-conscious extinction. For the first time in the planet’s history, most of the species will become extinct while the organism triggering their extinction will keep a record of it. And we, being humans, will not simply record scientific information about the Anthropocene; we will employ other forms of reminiscences, such as mourning, mythologizing, philosophizing, and aesthetically analyzing. My musings throughout this essay and my accompanying drawings in Threshold’s exhibition, Natural History is a case in point.
My practice is subsumed by these ideas and these are the reasons why I named my studio, Teleocene. It is a technical term I made up, which refers to the feeling of being trapped in the Anthropocene. It refers to the downward momentum, and our inability to change our path, of being spell-bound by a phenomenon so complex and so unstoppable that both logic and speech becomes moot, leaving us resolved to build teleological explanations for our current crisis as if it is something brought upon us from above, rather than taking responsibility and changing our ways.
At the NMNH, volunteers are encouraged to take regular breaks and visit other exhibitions. On those occasions, my favorite place is the Geology, Gems and Minerals exhibition. I drive much inspiration from rocks and this exhibit houses the largest collection of rocks in the world. Unlike the other exhibits, it also attracts a smaller and a quieter crowd. With their stoic presence and astronomic time scales, these pieces silence the living. In comparison to the fossils which may be hundreds of thousands of years old, a sedimentary iron rock formation can be 3 billion years of age, dwarfing all human perceptions of time and memory. Most people come to this exhibit to see the Hope Diamond, a famous gemstone with a distinct colonialist, imperial and Eurocentric provenance. The Hope Diamond is elegantly displayed in a room of its own, surrounded by a few other similar diamonds and gems. Also popular in the exhibit are the collections of gold, silver, crystals, and phosphoric minerals. In short, people love anything that shines, has vibrant colors, or glows in the dark. Meanwhile the display which holds a microscopic particle from the Big Bang, the origin of our universe, which is roughly 13.5 billion years old, sits in an undistinguished display at the entrance of the exhibit, almost entirely ignored by the visitors, except the dedicated few.
In contrast to the Geology, Gems and Minerals exhibit, the Deep Time exhibit is always crowded and loud. This exhibit relies heavily on the fossil record, the ossified remnants of once living organisms and it’s showcases include some of the largest fossils in the world. The hall amplifies the sound, and hundreds, if not thousands of people stream through it everyday. As volunteers, our job is to hold teaching activities, engage in informed conversations with the visitors, and answer questions. The crowd is diverse, but observers will note there are often groups of students wearing MAGA hats and unlike the other visitors, they shoot skeptical looks at the displays and rush through the hall in an intimidated fashion. Likewise, there are often adults who smirk at the texts which accompany the displays explaining climate change and past extinctions. I have seen several people having meltdowns because they wouldn’t accept global warming as a fact, and on at least two occasions I witnessed couples engage in loud arguments about the political intentions of the exhibition.
Unfortunately, the politics which surrounds the exhibit are not limited to the audience. The content of Deep Time is compromised, and it deploys a hushed down version of the type of argument we need today. It only has an irrelevantly small display dedicated to the fossil fuel industry’s impact on the environment, which is the main culprit behind global warming. Likewise, the scientist who curated the exhibit opted out of using the term Anthropocene. Instead, they refer to our current epoch as the “age of humans”.
Every time I see the signage “age of humans”, I ask myself, what does it mean? Of course, it is a translation of the technical term Anthropocene. But, as such it is also a common phrase. It lacks scientific authority. It is not a technical term that encapsulates what is happening, why is it happening, how is it happening, or to whom? On the other hand, as problematic as it may sound to its critics, Anthropocene is a technical geological term, and it doesn’t allow alternative meanings to be read into it. It directly states that we live in a period that is both ecologically and geologically compromised, and the material content of the planet has been distinguished from prior epochs due to human responsibility.
In his book titled Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson informs us that museums are built by all nation states not as monumental gestures for the past and the present of the land they occupy, but to legitimize the existence of the current nations. At the NMNH, the hall which houses the Geology, Gems, and Minerals is named after Janet Annenberg Hooker, the famous Philadelphia philanthropist and media mogul who donated the Hope Diamond to the museum, along with many other gemstones. Meanwhile, the hall which houses the Deep Time exhibition is named after the conservative millionaire, and pro-fossil fuel lobbyist David H. Koch who is also a global warming denier. As such, these spaces tell us that the manner in which we keep a record of our planet pays tribute to the privileged classes, and the people whose life’s mission ran against the purpose of these exhibits could be the real beneficiaries of what we call natural histories. They tell us that as in the case of the history of wars, so with the geological deep history of this planet, the narrative choices are often discriminatory and disenfranchising.
When I was asked to write a piece accompanying my show, and encourage a dialogue between my work and the Carbon Imaginary group show at Stand4 Gallery, my immediate reaction was to talk about thresholds as symbols of transition and encounters. Instead, I kept writing separate passages which refused to form a cohesive essay. In the end, I became convinced that what unified these passages was not a comprehensible thought, but the active relationship between the things we consider alive and the non-living. The title of the exhibition at Stand4 Gallery, The Carbon Imaginary, comes from Elizabeth Povinelli’s book titled Geontologies; A Requiem to Late Liberalism. I first heard Povinelli’s name during a discussion of “object oriented ontology.” My work has always been in sync with the general argument that we must have new philosophical discussions about how to look at the natural phenomenon not only from a living perspective, but also from the perspective of the inanimate objects. Adopting the point of view of something like a rock, for example, and trying to access its memory about what has happened in the past, and what is happening now is an essential theoretical approach for my work. Likewise, it is hard to argue against an author who titles one of the chapters of her book “Can Rocks Die? Life and Death inside the Carbon Imaginary.” Especially when the book is a critique of settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism. Povinelli combines both her legal expertise and her anthropology background to gain access to the Australian Aboriginal dream time mythology, and experience. As someone who studied and taught history and comparative religion for years, I find her work to be very strong. The black and white quote “Only life can die, fail and cease to be” in my show comes from her book, but I could have easily taken a number of other quotes. “All things that gamble against a growing entropy can be understood to be life,” she writes in defense of the inanimate presence. “Dependent on it but careless toward it,” she states in the context of environmental neglect and its consequences. Or “The inert is the truth of life, not its horror” she declares in defense of the non-life. It is interesting that in the early chapters of her book, Povinelli is convinced that the Anthropocene extinction will be the end of humankind. Yet towards the end she adopts a more hopeful tone, and closes her book with a festive, if not positive thought, “Get out the musical instruments. Put on the robes. Say a mass of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead. Cling to life even in the form of its mass extinction.”
Personally, I don’t care whether to adopt a skeptical or hopeful tone when it comes to the Anthropocene extinction. Historians are famously bad at predicting the future, and the artist in me says I should be in it for the present. Nevertheless, the works shown here are the fruits of excessively sketching for nearly 5 years, and living under the Trump administration. They are my way of subsiding personal and collective traumacene. Our social media outbursts, our museum melt downs, our quarantine and coronavirus infused panic attacks, our Black Lives Matter led street protests and our governments which are led by populist totalitarians suggest that we are psychologically far more fragile and damaged than we were a decade ago. Under the current circumstances, listening to the rocks for inspiration can be soothing if not healing. Natural history could help us guide ourselves out of the carbon imaginary and its curse. But, as a civilization which is built on genocide, slavery, and civil wars, as well as led by politicians who are science hating, climate change denying racists, we must also ask, what is nature, what is history, and what is natural history?